Bears Pro Bowl alternate center-turned-left guard Cody Whitehair practiced Tuesday, six days after suffering a finger injury on his left hand, Matt Nagy confirmed a couple hours prior to his team hitting the field for the first time since Friday night’s preseason game against the New York Giants.Whitehair, 27, enters a contract year after starting 49 of a possible 49 games to begin his career, including playing every snap last season. It’s believed by many that if Ryan Pace opts to do a preseason contract extension for a fourth consecutive year, Whitehair is the most likely recipient.
“Obviously, Cody is an important player for us,” Pace said last month. “When we talk about our culture and we talk about unselfish and great teammates, Cody embodies all those things. But you guys know as we get into these extensions, they remain internal. But Cody’s an important part of this.”
Indeed, Whitehair has seemingly been as steady in his first full training camp at left guard as he was last season, when he was arguably the Bears’ most consistent blocker. In addition to James Daniels’ impressive pivot back to his collegiate position of center, it’s created real optimism that one of the NFL’s only starting O-lines to return entirely intact can also be among its best overall.
“He [tells] us that we have something really special here with the guys that we have in our room,” Whitehair said this spring of O-line coach Harry Hiestand’s message to his room. “That’s what we’re striving for — to be the best in the NFL — and we just help our team win and be the best that we can be.”
Tuesday’s confirmation that the continuity the group is set to enjoy come Sept. 5 vs. the Green Bay Packers won’t be further jeopardized this week after the early exit of Whitehair and fellow starting guard Kyle Long (ejected following practice fight) from the team’s most recent practice is another encouraging sign.
However, Rashaad Coward, vying to make the team as a reserve offensive tackle two years after leaving Old Dominion as a defensive lineman, didn’t practice with his teammates inside the Walter Payton Center Tuesday because of an elbow injury sustained against the Giants.
Coward is mired in, frankly, a rather uninspired battle alongside Cornelius Lucas and T.J. Clemmings to win the swing OT job vacated by Bradley Sowell’s offseason move to tight end — though he struggled in the preseason prior to getting injured and has yet to work on the blind side, a necessary prerequisite to becoming the No. 3 tackle.
“Right now our swing tackles, I think, are doing a good job,” Nagy said. “They’re getting a lot of reps — which is great because we can see what they can do. With Rashaad [getting injured], that was a little bit of a setback there, but there’s another guy who was a defensive lineman two years ago, so again, we need to have patience with that.
“Lucas has done really … he’s a big guy. He’s done a good job with some of these defensive ends, so we like that. We know that’s a position that we got to get right in that swing tackle area.”
PFW surmised over the weekend that it’s also a position the Bears are likely to be scouring waivers and other teams’ veteran releases for a potential upgrade, perhaps more so than any outside of kicker and tight end.
And speaking of the Bears’ TE room, where Trey Burton comes off groin surgery stemming from his late scratch from the wild-card defeat vs. his former team and only undrafted rookies Dax Raymond and Jesper Horsted would be considered natural replacements at the “U” position, it was notable that Nagy described that multi-faceted role Tuesday as the most difficult to learn after quarterback in his offense.
“The No. 2 tight end, the ‘U’ tight end, has to learn a lot,” he said. “They’re what we call an adjustor. Whether it’s him or Tarik [Cohen], the adjustors in our offense are the ones that move around a little bit and do some things. There’s some learning volume to it. But I think every player is a little different. We as coaches have a volume to those guys. We moved [Cohen] around a lot last year, and I do feel like there was a time probably later in the season where we probably gave him a little bit too much. And when you mentally drain them, it pulls them back physically.”
Of course, Cohen not getting the ball enough was both perhaps Nagy’s biggest regret in the playoff defeat and almost assuredly the byproduct of Burton’s absence and the shallow depth behind him. But be careful not to misconstrue Nagy’s words here, as he said earlier in the offseason Cohen actually exceeded the Bears expectations with his ability to handle a big workload. Indeed, he isn’t hinting at scaling back Cohen’s work; he’s pointing out that giving him too many assignments in Year 1 in the offense, in and of itself, might have held Cohen back. A year later, we can’t imagine that still being an issue.
As for TE depth, that’ll depend on whether Raymond — the 24-year-old Utah State product whose $45,000 signing bonus was the largest among Chicago’s UDFA class — or someone else can make their mark over the next couple weeks at what’s obviously a complex position. Clearly, what’s being asked of Raymond and Co. is even more than many thought.